Women in the Church
by Mark M. Mattison
Few issues are more explosive in today's church than that of women in ministry. After 25 years of controversy and division, the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church made headlines in Grand Rapids, Michigan, when it agreed in 1996 that classes (local groups of churches) in their denomination may choose whether to allow women into leadership positions. Several conservative churches pulled out and formed other alliances.
No one can deny that this is a difficult issue; there are plenty of proof-texts close at hand for all sides in the debate. In this article I hope to address the issue from a slightly different angle, considering the general tenor of Scriptural teaching rather than focusing on a few isolated verses. I also would like to consider the issue in the context of the priesthood of all believers.
This issue is often labeled "the ordination of women." The term is clearly a misnomer to those of us who question the rubric of the clerical system in the first place. If, as we have already argued in Authority in the Church, there are no valid "offices" of authority within the body - only Spirit-designated gifts and functions - then the question of women in positions of ecclesiastical power is largely moot. The less hierarchical is our ecclesiology, the less threatening is this issue:
Today, women are pressing for entry into the power structures of the church through ordination. Yet, if they are granted the right to ministerial office, this would serve merely to reinforce unbiblical hierarchical organizational patterns....Ultimate authority in the church resides in the Spirit of Christ, and cannot be distributed or delegated except by the sovereign Spirit himself. The church may not, whether by majority vote, ordination, the imposition of hands, or any combination thereof, delegate the authority that Christ has given to the church as a body. It does not have the authority to designate one person from its midst as a representative, either of itself to Christ or of Christ to the church.Reference1
If "ordination" in its most accurate sense best describes every believer who has been "chosen" by God for "ministry," to participate in his "priesthood" (seeLeadership and Ordination), then there is no question but that women as well as men, every believer in Christ, is "ordained" of God.
Nevertheless insofar as leadership does exist in the church, the question of women's full participation is still an issue, albeit not as strong of an issue in our ecclesiology.
Women in Ministry
The New Testament Scriptures have much to say about women in ministry, both by direct imperative and by example. The theological basis for equal opportunity, developed from texts like Acts 10:34,35; 2 Corinthians 5:16,17; and Galatians 3:28, has been a common (and unresolved) feature of this debate for a long time. Hence we will not cover that ground here but will go straight to the incontrovertible cases of women in New Testament ministry.
Women financially supported Jesus in his ministry (Luke 8:2,3) and figured prominently in the establishment of churches of Thessalonica (Acts 17:4) and Berea (v. 12). The early church was also blessed with prophetesses (Acts 2:17; 21:9) who spoke the word of the Lord. The first recorded convert of Paul's European mission was a woman named Lydia (Acts 16:13,14), and the baptism of her household marked the beginning of the Philippian church (v. 15). Paul later wrote that two other women in Philippi, Euodia and Syntyche, "contended at my side in the cause of the gospel" (Phil. 4:2,3, NIV, emphasis mine). Paul uses a strong word to describe their labor: sunathleo (to contend or struggle along with).Reference2 Hence the rendering of the Bauer Arndt-Gingrich lexicon, "they fought at my side in (spreading) the gospel."Reference3 These women not only assisted Paul; they ministered right at his side in an apparently equal capacity.
Other women commended by Paul for their ministries include Mary, Tryphena, Tryphosa, Persis, and Rufus' mother (Rom. 16:6,12,13).
A more prominent role in the early church was played by Priscilla. Priscilla, along with her husband Aquila, was involved with evangelism and teaching (Acts 18:2,24-26) and even led churches in Rome (Rom. 16:3,4) and Ephesus (1 Cor. 16:19). Similarly, Nympha led a church in Laodicea (Col. 4:15). As indicated in the articleLeadership and Ordination, hosts of house churches were naturally leaders within those churches.
Finally, there are the two other women described in Romans 16 who clearly ministered in leadership roles. One of them is apostle Junia (Rom. 16:7). Some commentators have argued that this name should be translated as a male name, "Junias." Technically, the Greek is ambiguous. Is the name actually a shortened version of Junianus (a male name)? Commentators admit that a masculine form of this name has not actually been attested in the literature. This fact alone weakens the argument.Reference4 In addition, the feminine reading has almost unanimous patristic support. For example, John Chrysostom wrote: "How great the wisdom of this woman that she was even deemed worthy of the apostles' title."Reference5 In the light of this evidence, James D.G. Dunn writes: "The assumption that it must be male is a striking indictment of male presumption regarding the character and structure of earliest Christianity....We may firmly conclude, however, that one of the foundation apostles of Christianity was a woman and a wife."Reference6
The other woman is Phoebe, a minister or deacon (diakonon) of the congregation of Cenchrea (v. 1). Romans 16:2 provides more information yet about Phoebe: Paul calls her "a patroness (prostatis)." Bible translations render this term "servant," "friend," or "helper." This is appropriate since leadership roles in the church are roles of service (cf. Matt. 20:20-28). What we may not realize, however, is that this term is a feminine variation of the term proistemi, used to describe elders "ruling" or "managing" in 1 Timothy 3:4,5; 5:17.Reference7
Thus the general tenor of New Testament teaching indicates that ministry in the church, including leadership ministry, was broad enough in scope to include women. Despite these many Scriptures, however, the case for women in ministry is often derailed at the point of two perplexing proof-texts which are frequently hailed as "clearly" settling the issue. These texts will be discussed in the articleObjections Considered.